Monday, December 3, 2012

A Management Tool every PI should Know and Use

Let's face it: every PI is a manager. PIs have people working for them: people for whom they are somewhat responsible; people who can screw up in innumerable ways, who can suffer, despair, get lost, or make the lab a toxic environment. PIs are managers, even if sometimes they don't want to admit it.

And this is a nice thing, really, because it means that every PIs has access to all these techniques, tools and methods that managers in business were developing for years. All these "management tools" that work, and that are used every day by hordes of tie-wearing "managers" in cubicles and offices all over the world. These tools are effective, simple, well described, and "ready to be served": even if their names and some of the descriptions may sound cheesy to an average academic (especially to a "hard science" one). For a PI to reject these managements tools just because they originate from a different subculture is exactly as irrational as for a business manager to get engaged in some uninformed self-medication. When you need to treat a medical condition, you find a doctor. When you need to manage people, you read a book on managing people. It's a good and worthy thing to do.

Anyway, let me give you a practical example. If I were to pick a single most important management technique that every PI should learn and use, it would be the "One on one meetings". Now, even if you mentally roll your eyes, and think "Gosh it is so boring...", don't close the page yet, but rather read. It is important.

Consider this obvious statement: people who are easy to manage, don't actually need to be managed. They are doing just fine: they catch most hints, they usually keep their promises, and they can always come to you with questions, when they have any. You don't need a special technique to interact with them! But surely there are some people in your lab that need guidance, support, or control. People who tend to generate problems of some sort. And you know what? It's hard to manage them, and thus it is unpleasant, and that's why you don't like it, and are avoiding it at all costs. Maybe you dread talking to them about their progress, because they get so defensive that your head aches. Or maybe they are easily offended; or lie to you; or find hundreds of excuses every time you ask them a question. But in any case, by now you may be habitually evading any serious conversations with them. You tried to use jokes to send them a hint, but they don't get hints, and the situation is slowly getting worse. Most probably they also don't come to you with questions about their progress, because these discussions are unpleasant for them as well. So here's the point: those people who need your management the most, are the ones that will never get it. Unless you consciously do something about it.

And here's a good news: many of them can be salvaged through a simple, but structured management process. Actually almost everybody can be salvaged, just at some point you will hit the cost / benefit ceiling of a sort, when the effort won't justify the outcomes. Still it's good to give it a try. Everybody are born clueless, but most people pick it up, and require much less care as time goes on. Try to put it on a right track from the very beginning, and most probably it will only become easier.

- So, what do you want me to do?
- Establish a sequence of regular one-on-one meetings. Put them in the calendar. For those in your team who are "doing fine", do them every quarter. For newcomers and people who may be slightly lost, do it monthly. In most immature / critical cases do it once every two weeks. Reduce the frequency as the situation improves.

- Why would I make them formal? I hate everything formal! What good is it? They can come to me any time, I'm not hiding from them!
- First, they won't come, because they either don't know they need to, or they are scared. Call them. Second, make it formal, and book some time for the meeting, like 30 minutes or so. The benefit here is that surprisingly it will make your discussions much, much easier. Talking to a person about their progress is always awkward. Some people hate saying bad things; some people have hard time saying good things, because it just sounds stupid! Why would you suddenly, in some random hour of some random Wednesday, start praising, or criticizing anybody? And here's where a scheduled meeting helps: you sit together, and you have to talk good things. And you have to talk bad things. You have scheduled the time, came to the room, closed the door, it was all really awkward, and thus the quota of awkwardness is already met. Now, as you have to talk about the person's progress, you'll be able to do that. Because you've staged it all correctly.

- But what the heck will we be talking about? It's all clear, and I never make my opinions secret! I always share them in some form or another! How would one more repetition help?
- Again, most probably you did not really share your feedback "openly", even if you think you did. You made some comments here and there, but you never combined them all into one picture for the person to see. And there were other people around, and you might have adjusted your words a bit, or at least it sounded that way. The person may have not heard you. They may have thought it's a joke, or an understatement, or an exaggeration. It's surprising how effective the words could be if they are said openly and simply, behind closed doors, one on one. You look them in the eyes (or you don't - I hate looking people in the eyes actually), but for the matter: you say them what you need to say. "This is good. And I mean it. This is bad. And I also mean it. Now that's what we do next." People need that. Most people need that.

- Still I don't know how it can be useful at all, because what would happen is that we'll have the same conversation again and again. It will not work, because adults can not be changed.
- You're not trying to change them, you're trying to change their behavior. And that's a much easier thing to do. There are two tricks that will ensure you don't have the same discussion happening again in every meeting. First: you'll introduce some measures, and some deadlines (or target dates). You'll be quantitative. And second: you'll write down your agreements, and you'll share them after the meeting, by e-mail. This way:

  1. In the beginning of each meeting you'll check your notes from the previous one, and compare the actual situation with the one you planned / agreed on. You'll start with the facts. How many experiments were done? Where's the paper? How is the figure doing? Rig construction? Training? Certification? And don't get lost if your initial estimations were wrong. You'll correct them if necessary, but at least you'll have a starting point for a discussion, and a seemingly objective one. It's OK to make mistakes and miscalculate everything, especially in science, where experiments routinely take 10 times longer than they were supposed to. But it's much easier to disregard the numbers when you have them than to invent the numbers on the spot.
  2. Your trainee's words will become a promise, and they will have to provide explanations if the "actuals" don't match the "projection". They will become more accountable. If they disagree - they should ideally disagree in the meeting. Once they promised to do something, they are supposed to keep the promise. If something changes, you either discuss it at the next meeting, or they try to find you in between, but at least they won't be able to say that "they thought it's OK", or "they forgot", or "they did not actually mean it". No, guys, if you agreed with something, do it. If you disagree, say it now. Don't assume: ask. Get certain about what you both mean, and clarify the misunderstandings upfront.
  3. The opposite is also true! If you said something, you become accountable for your words. And that's a good thing, as your trainees won't have a chance anymore to say that you promised something and did not do it, or that you changed the scope of the project without telling them explicitly, or that you never told them they are doing it wrong. It's on paper now. 
  4. If worse comes to worst, and your trainee doesn't perform, these papers will help you to part with them without feeling bad and cruel (as you'll have their performance documented), and without looking cruel in the eyes of the broader community (again, because you have it documented). I'm not even going into the lawsuits topic here, but you can extrapolate if you wish.
  5. If worst comes to even worst, and you get insane, and really start changing projects in your mind without telling anybody, your trainees will have the documents on hand that will prove their performance. So at least their future won't be screwed. You see: it's your mutual protection! It's good!
To sum up: Regular, scheduled meetings, with target dates, numerical measures, and after-meeting recaps make your interactions with trainees transparent and clear; make both of you accountable; give you an opportunity to address any issues early (including the sensitive ones that nobody would share in the "lab meetings"), and also protect both of you in case of a conflict.

References: here's a really nice set of podcasts about management techniques. Note the topics (and names) of 2 first podcasts ever recorded (in year 2005!).  It's indicative.

PS. If you, my beloved reader, are not a PI, but a postdoc, graduate, or an undergraduate student, all that was said here still applies to you, only in reverse. If your PI doesn't have a process like that on hand - for God's sake - force them, or trick them into it. Meet with them regularly (even if they don't realize you're having one-on-ones). Send them notes of your discussions (even if they don't read them). Update them on your status, and demand a feedback from them (whether you meet the expectations, or exceed them, or do not meet them - in which case do immediately learn why, and how you're supposed to meet them). If your boss is overly delusional, you'll know it now, not 4 years into the grad school. If your boss is mistaken, you'll clear the misunderstanding now, while it is still small, and neither of you had built an immune response against the other. Do it, it's useful!

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